"Under Secretary Napolitano's leadership, we have strengthened border security beyond what many believed was possible. They wanted more agents on the border. Well, we now have more boots on the ground on the southwest border than at any time in our history. The Border Patrol has 20,000 agents — more than twice as many as there were in 2004, a buildup that began under President Bush and that we have continued."
—President Obama, May 10, 2011
WASHINGTON — President Obama traveled to El Paso on Tuesday to give a speech on immigration, even though virtually no one in Washington thinks there is any desire in Congress to tackle the issue. For that reason, as my Washington Post colleague Chris Cillizza noted on his blog, the speech should be understood as "a political document rather than a policy one."
In that context, it's important for the president to demonstrate he is working hard to improve border security. We were struck by the section above, in part because it sought to claim credit for a doubling of agents but also acknowledged a debt to former president George W. Bush.
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How much did the Obama administration do on this issue?
The Border Patrol, which is part of the Department of Homeland Security, is responsible for patrolling the borders with Canada and Mexico, as well as coastal waters around Florida, but the majority of its agents — 85 percent — are focused on the southern border with Mexico. At the time of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, there were slightly more than 9,000 Border Patrol agents.
Even after 9/11, growth in the Border Patrol was limited to about 500 a year until immigration became a hot issue. In 2004, Congress passed the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act, which called for adding no fewer than 2,000 border agents a year, "subject to the availability of appropriations." Then, in 2006, President Bush announced he would immediately dispatch 6,000 National Guard members to the southern border states and seek to double the number of agents by quickly hiring 6,000 new ones.
In his speech, Obama gave a nod to Bush's actions, saying this was a "buildup that began under President Bush and that we have continued." This is a more elegant formulation than the phrasing used by Obama's spokesman, Jay Carney, in briefings previewing the speech this week. Carney simply erased Bush out of the picture.
On Monday, Carney said: "I think he (Obama) will make points about the steps we've taken on border security, the fact that the number of border agents today is double what it was in 2004." On Tuesday, Carney said: "We have substantially increased the number of Border Patrol agents twice — more than 20,000 now — twice the number that there were in 2004."
However, that 20,000 number was on track to be achieved before Obama took the oath of office. By the end of fiscal year 2009, which began on Oct. 1, 2008, there were 20,119 Border Patrol agents.
On Oct. 20, 2009, the Border Patrol website put up a notice saying it was no longer hiring: "The Border Patrol successfully filled the Presidential mandate of hiring 6,000 additional Border Patrol Agents (BPA) and presently has sufficient applicants to meet their continuing hiring goals. Therefore, the Reinstatement Program is indefinitely suspended and will no longer accept applications."
That would be Bush's mandate.
In fact, in the fiscal year 2011 budget, announced in early 2010, Obama proposed to let the number of border agents drop by 180 through attrition as a budget-saving maneuver. But then in June of last year, after Republican lawmakers balked at an immigration overhaul without a boost in border security, the administration suddenly requested an additional $600 million for security along the southwest border. The money in part would be used to hire an additional 1,000 agents. That bill passed a few months later.
In its 2012 budget proposal, the Department of Homeland Security said it had hired 439 additional agents in 2010 and was on track to have a total of 21,370 agents by the end of this fiscal year. Homeland Security said it would maintain that level in 2012.
There are currently about 20,700 border agents, a Homeland Security Department spokesman said.
Obama certainly phrased this more accurately than his spokesman, but the set-up —"we have strengthened" — might leave the listener with the impression that much of this growth in the border force was accomplished under the Obama administration. The doubling in agents was a goal set in place by Bush. Obama has added additional agents beyond Bush's goal, though only under pressure from Congress.